Recordings

Cheap Trick
(Cheap Trick/Red Ant Entertainment)

Before we bog ourselves down in the bubble gum, let's get the disclaimer out of the way: The purpose of this essay isn't to compare Cheap Trick to John Coltrane, or Bob Dylan, or Elvis Costello, or any other so-called "critically important" musical acts. In fact, as we survey the history of 20th-century popular music, Cheap Trick shouldn't even register as a blip -- unless it's a footnote somewhere that points to them as a particularly tenacious example of an anti-important pop nuisance, the epitome of vapid.

This, of course, is what makes Cheap Trick rebels (notice here the use of the present tense). They've had no other desire than to wallow in the cliches of cliches of teen pain and desire. Crowd-pleasers primarily, they've never wanted to say anything more than "I want you to want me," in a catchy, big-hit kind of way. They've shamelessly flogged their dying collective horse, constructing sappy, overproduced, post-Beatles ballads and mostly uninspired, semidistorted rockers out of its last feeble whinnies. And then there's the shtick (the pretty boys vs. the goobers, the checkered 24-necked guitars), which, back in the late '70s, was often misinterpreted as "absurdist," and today as, well, "fresh." Yes, to love Cheap Trick is to prefer a lite beer over a microbrew, to pour fake maple on your toaster waffles. To love Cheap Trick is to embrace American mediocrity at its most refined -- to celebrate the "art" of the artless and the "hook" of an icebox-to-Eskimo sales job. And if you, dear reader, have borne this cross like I have, through so many years of I-told-you-sos and what-are-you-stupids, waiting for a sign of dead equine resurrection, take a seat, if you haven't already.

Exactly 20 years after the first Cheap Trick Cheap Trick, here it is, the heavily hyped, re-self-titled re-debut. Breathe easy. It's neither "critically important" nor Bryan Adams-abhorrent. Indeed, it's vintage Cheap Trick (as the ads tell us), and since their confection has always been a product more than a process, the complainers can just go ahead and leave the arena. And unlike Dream Police -- or any album thereafter -- the standout tracks are fairly plentiful (bearing in mind all the relativity): "Anytime," the opening cut, has that signature Bun E. Carlos snare-drum shuffle (as does the Meatloaf-esque "Wrong All Along"), then some melodic guitar-picking, then the distortion explosion as Zander melodically shreds his vocal chords in a way reminiscent of Kurt Cobain or Roger Daltry. (There's a chicken-or-egg question for you.) Or the sugary Beatles-John Lennon -- uh -- stylings on "Carnival Game," "Yeah, Yeah," and "You Let a Lot of People Down." Nice chord progressions, nice hooks; you've heard them all, but you haven't, really. You're smiling, and you're right. You've heard this entire album before, even if you haven't. You've been dreaming it, for better or worse, since the age of 12.

-- Curtis Bonney

Zhane
Saturday Night
(Motown)

Jean Norris and Renee Neufville, known collectively as Zhane, are unabashed fans of the radio; they make utterly mainstream music, but with their own distinctive stamp. On their first recording, 1994's Pronounced Jah-nay (the name is an imperfect amalgam of their first names), they scored minor hits with austere but rhythmically strident songs like "Hey Mr. DJ" and "Groove Thang." The songs' dark tones and savvy lyrics announced that the duo were fans of late-'70s and early '80s R&B. The production values were similar to Aretha's early Arista recordings, and the vibe hearkened back to the heady days of disco. They were deeply cognizant that in some communities partying meant cathartic affirmation more than escapist celebration. In other words, they really did believe in the boogie. And the boogie believed in them (the recording went platinum). They are smart (both are alumnae of Temple University) and they write solid, well-structured songs. If they can maintain this level of quality for a decade or so, they'll be a stateside, distaff, black version of the Pet Shop Boys.

Saturday Night skillfully expands their terrain a bit. Pardon the cliche, but they pick up where they left off in the first seconds of the new disc. The initial words to Neufville's "Request Line" are, "I know it's better when/ The rhythm works together/ With the beat in your soul." They spend the first half of the disc's 16 songs reinforcing their groove theories. The other half is devoted to ballads -- the serene late-night finish to the party. They've extended their spare approach to the quiet-storm side of R&B. Each song reflects an intense attention to detail and refuses to smother the listener with sentimentality. The tunes are sensual but not overtly bump-and-grind; Norris and Neufville are too smart and self-assured to be boy toys.

Most female R&B singers are assailed for sounding like their producers. That claim holds here, too; Norris and Neufville produce themselves. They've taken the risky strategy of locating their voice within the confines of mainstream black pop, and have for the most part succeeded (although some writers have ignorantly lumped them in with the Allures and Totals and otherwise interchangeable B-girl groups). On their second recording, they reinforce their position and start to move beyond it. Saturday Night is a small triumph. Although they sound like they have big victories inside of them, it's exactly what they were aiming for.

-- Martin Johnson

Julie Miller
Blue Pony
(High Tone)

Blue Pony begins with "A Kiss on the Lips," a burst of late-'70s songwriter rock of the Nick Lowe/Squeeze variety, which serves splendidly to divert the listener who might otherwise be tempted to make all manner of Americana-style assumptions. Having made her point, Julie Miller lays back into a midpaced waltz through some scandalously viable new wave mountain music.

This is Miller's first secular album, and she comes previously commended as both artist and songwriter. Her woeful hymn "All My Tears" held its ground on Emmylou Harris' celebrity-spangled Wrecking Ball of 1995. She began performing in Austin at the age of 16 around 20 years ago and now brings us that classic fifth album that pop legends are made of.

Miller is definitely a sharer. Despite a strong and distinctive solo voice, she performs most of these songs with another singer. She retains focus by choosing partners possessing a fairly uniform vocal texture. Innocence Mission's Karen Peris joins her on a pristine Fleetwood Mac-like salvation song, "By the Way of Sorrow," their two voices seamlessly guiding each other through steps of courtly commiseration, invoking one of those Old World dances beginning with the letter Q. Harris' innocent warble adds a more translucent cast to "Forever My Beloved," while Miller herself strays from the quavering purity of Buffy Sainte-Marie (yes!) to some strangely Patti Smith-like moments.

An undeservedly neglected style of female-male vocal accompaniment forms the foundation of this work. Julie Miller has achieved a quite wonderful vocal rapport with Buddy Miller, her longtime partner and fellow High Tone recording artist. In the plaintive tradition of Harris and some early Patty Loveless recordings, the female takes the leaf while the male opposes her with a kind of contained and precise howl. This barefoot folksiness lends a sincere and faithful geometry to the proceedings, but there is an occasional world-weary manneredness about Julie Miller that sets her apart from her more traditional peers.

She sometimes seems to hold her words hostage, recalling the youthful Elvis Costello and other sensitive snarlers. She reluctantly unleashes truculent T's, fey R's, and disdainful S's (used to fine effect in the Costelloid trompe l'oeil staircase "All the Pieces of Mary"), yet Miller's delivery transcends ironic posturing, her songs appearing to arise from more than the soreness of trampled genius. Her simple statements of faith, hope, and sorrow in "Give Me an Ocean" are a much more accurate indication of where she's coming from. After all, her sleeve notes instruct listeners to "Be kind to children and animals." You know she means it.

-- Cath Carroll

Mark Eitzel
West
(Warner Bros.)

Bis
The New Transistor Heroes
(Grand Royal)

Perceptive you -- noticing that the above talents have little, if anything, in common. Perhaps you dread that imminent, heady push for synthesis, whereby Eitzel, a gloomy-gus singer, formerly of San Francisco's American Music Club, and Bis -- an ebullient Scottish trio who play pop punk, of sorts -- are proven to be not just similar, but downright sibling. Well, sweat not and keep your lunch down. The two parties are opposite; if they collided, they'd annihilate in a bright burst of introspective fluff. Eitzel is one of those critically "established" figures who provide evidence that rock can be a serious and mature art. He's also one of those lyricists who inspire rock writers to dredge up writing-workshop terms like "emotional landscaping." Bis are relatively new, definitely young (average age: 19), and imperatively silly; their landscaping is pure AstroTurf. Eitzel is backed by an able stable of pickup musicians, light on the percussion, and his new album, West, was co-written and produced by a member of R.E.M. (Which one? Does it matter?) Bis are supported by a drum machine and flaunt dorky-dumb pseudonyms (Manda Rin, John Disco, Sci-Fi Steven). Eitzel's song titles are full of evocative knickknack doom ("Free of Harm," "Stunned & Frozen," "Old Photographs," "Fresh Screwdriver") and imply story lines through rough-cut detail (on "If You Have to Ask": "So we drive around/ Don't worry I'm not lost/ The cab driver frowns"). Bis track titles are frivolous and often meaningless ("Sweet Shop Avengerz," "Popstar Kill," "Rollerblade Zero," and "Antiseptic Poetry"), while Bis lyrics (such as the infectious "Avengerz" chorus, "This is an advertisement!") are delivered with a comic brill, especially novelty-heavy on the part of keyboardist Rin. Eitzel uses spare and familiar chordal movements and slightly quirky instrumentation (including vibes, marimba, tambourines, tablas, and string arrangements) to provide the feeling that the proceedings are being "kept real" in the airless studio environment. Bis employ distorted guitar and hokey keyboard (these occasionally reeking of Faith No More's cheese) to produce a melodic and harmonic interplay that wends along fast, with a fairly rigid dynamic (headstrong, loud). Instrumentally, West ends up sounding like so many other products, by so many other mainstream songwriters formerly in bands. Going solo, they find themselves at the mercy of producers who finesse and embellish their material. At the end of this process, the songs end up sounding like nothing more than what they really are: a singer/songwriter's voice and acoustic guitar or piano needlessly festooned with elaborate side instrumentation. (Though, gotta say, this worked fairly well in the case of Liz Phair.) In fact, "Free of Harm" reminds me of nothing more than the output of John Cougar Mellencamp miraculously bereft of its rock -- Eitzel has always seemed, in fact, afraid, unable, or unwilling to rock at all. Bis are insubstantial, growing too old by the minute to pull off what they're doing any longer, and altogether frivolous, but they entertain, they adhere, they rock. Though The New Transistor Heroes is just another stick of sharp-edged bubble gum, let's not forget: Unlike West and most other mature, serious efforts, it rocks. Hence, it's fun. Guess which album I prefer?

-- Michael Batty

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